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A review of two new books on modern Islam.

The Trouble With Islam: A wake-up call for honesty and change
Irshad Manji
Mainstream Publishing
ISBN 1 84018 8375

Why I Am A Muslim: An American Odyssey
Asma Gull Hasan
ISBN 0 00 717533 7

Irshad Manji seems angry. Angry that Islam is entrenched in cultural values. Angry at its treatment of women. Angry that, as she puts it, Muslims are stuck in imitation mode, refusing to question or interpret the Koran in a modern-day environment, unlike Christians and Jews.

At a time when Islam’s role in the West is increasingly under question, Manji’s book The Trouble With Islam: A wake-up call for honesty and change is a timely, if somewhat loose and occasionally confusing, diatribe against what she sees as the inequities of Islam today.

Early on Manji reveals that she is both a Muslim herself (born to Ugandan Asians) and an openly ‘out’ lesbian living in her adopted city of Toronto. She calls herself a “Muslim refusenik” and asks readers to debate with her via her website of the same name.

In the USA her fierce criticisms of the faith have made her a bestseller, as well as target for hate mail and abuse. The windows of her home have been replaced with toughened glass, she no longer carries a mobile phone, and she has at times had to hire bodyguards. And when you read this book you can see why she has raised so many hackles.

Why should women be stoned for adultery in some parts of the Islamic world, she asks, even when they have been raped? Why must Muslims take the Koran as the ‘literal’ and last words of God, without being able to apply and interpret to a world that is at times very different to the 7th century desert from which the Prophet Muhammad sprung? For too long mainstream Muslims have written off criticism of their religion, she says, claiming that any ‘backwardness’ we see is the sign of cultural not religious influence. Rubbish, Manji replies.

What has happened to the ancient Koranic notion of “ijtihad” or “free thinking”, she asks, which gave rise to the flowering of Islam and thirst for knowledge during the first centuries of the religion? This was a time when Muslims were more free to philosophise and live with the other faiths, when knowledge (and the many scientific discoveries which took place under Islam) thrived. She tells us that that time disappeared when the Islamic empire was under external threat and suffering internal divisions, leading to a retreat inwards. Now, she claims, Islam’s religious scholars often parrot debates and learning that has been copied over centuries.

She also rails against the influence of desert/Arabian-led literalism or what she calls “foundamentalism”, with its stifling lack of change. And how is it, she asks, that in the fount of Islam today – Saudi Arabia – a woman has the same status as a car? Desert tribalism, with its non-democratic beliefs, is not suitable for Muslims in the West says Manji.

Her solutions are somewhat wishy-washy, but as a sort of Michael Moore for the western Islamic world, Manji’s criticisms ensure she will have a reading among people in the West. Whether they are Muslims is another matter.

Asma Gull Hasan’s book, on the other hand, is an altogether different beast. As a tonic to Manji’s acerbic essay, it provides a gentler understanding to the author’s belief in the oneness and embracing values of Islam today, particularly the Sufism that she follows. For non-Muslims it’s an interesting and very readable backgrounder to a Muslim’s life and beliefs in the West. Hasan wants Islam to be a viable spiritual option for anyone. Whether it will or not might be up to Muslims themselves.

This story first appeared in The Scotsman ©2005

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